Friday, April 9th, 2010

Reading alone: How ebooks will kill the smallest libraries

A shelf at a church library catalogued by LibraryThing members. (See other flash-mob cataloging events.)

I’ve argued before (1, 2) that ebooks will hurt or even kill traditional libraries. I’d like to present the even stronger case that ebooks will kill off the small “community” libraries all around us–the shelves and rooms at churches, health centers and many other similar places.

These little, informal lending libraries grow like weeds all around us and contribute to the fabric of social life and community identity. It will be a shame to lose them, but it is probably inevitable.

Ebooks hurt traditional libraries. In brief, the argument is that paper-book libraries made economic sense because libraries owned books like anyone else, but could efficiently organize them to be lent out many times.

This “First Sale Doctrine” falls before the licensed-usage model of contemporary ebooks. It’s not in publishers’ or writers’ interests to allow libraries to buy an item once at a consumer or near-consumer price and lend it out to many people, even serially, forever. Libraries will be forced to pay something closer to the true value of their lending activity, which will cost much more. It will convert libraries from an almost magical value multiplier, into a “simple” book subsidy.

Why are they dead? Ebooks kill small community libraries for the same basic reason—ebooks are and will remain a licensed good, not a freely owned one. The smallest libraries rely on the rights implicit in physical ownership. eBooks change—take back—many of those rights.

This boils down a little differently:
  • Small libraries depend to a large degree on cast-offs and donations. But consumers can’t give their ebooks to anyone when they’re done with them. They’re technically and/or legally locked to a device or personal account.
  • Small collections grow organically and lazily without a “librarian.” It’s unlikely they will be able to negotiate and organize whatever “institutional subscriptions” will be available for public libraries.
  • If community libraries often can’t pay for new paper books, it’s unlikely they will have the funds to engage in high-priced site- or multi-use licensing of books.
  • Public libraries have market power. Even if they can’t preserve first-sale value, they can use their collective and even individual scale to negotiate deals. Small community libraries are too fragmented and casual for market power.
  • Public libraries are connected to real moral and political power, and it pays dividends. For example, although public libraries weren’t even involved in the infamous Google deal, the parties thought it politic to grant public libraries free access to copyrighted books at one terminal per building. This power may come in handy if publishers put the squeeze on them, but the smallest community have neither market or political power.

Counter-arguments. The argument could be made that ebooks will eventually revert to a more traditional “ownership” model. But why? Consumers have already made it clear that they will trade convenience and price to give up traditional rights of resale, lending, donation and inheritance. There has been no large-scale clamor for such rights, and I don’t see one emerging. Rather, as ebooks advance, the personal, non-transferable nature of the medium will become increasingly accepted.

It has also been suggested that, although ebook DRM and contracts will stiffle lending, rampant piracy can function as a sort of rough substitute. If ebook piracy reaches music-piracy levels, this may come about–together with a sharp decline in quality writing which, unlike music, can’t fall back on concert tickets and t-shirts to make ends meet. But either way, small communities will not be involved. Private citizens may trade ebooks, but a church or a senior center will not put its legal neck on the line to engage in a secondary activity like book lending.

What will we lose? At lot more than you might think, particularly if you’re healthy, young and not much of a joiner. But here’s a partial inventory of some the small lending libraries within a mile of two of my home:

  • A dozen churches, some with significant libraries
  • Two synagogues
  • A muslim community center
  • A natural birthing and parenting center
  • An Irish heritage center
  • A handful of exclusive private clubs
  • A Masonic temple
  • An arts and theatre center
  • A welter of general health centers
  • A cancer center
  • A center for grieving children
  • A hospice
  • A homeless shelter
  • A left-wing political action center
  • An advocacy group for Maine children
  • A center for transgender youth
  • A fiber-arts group
  • An Audubon Society
  • The YMCA
  • Semi-ornamental collections in a legion of coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, bars and so forth
  • Two “Bookcrossing zones,” where strangers leave and grab used books
  • A tiny, poor, seldom-open private library that’s been around since 1815 but mostly stocks recent bestsellers

Gloom and Doom? There is another side, of course. We shouldn’t forget that ebooks may well turn out to be an overall boon. Convenience, universal selection and writer-reader disintermediation are powerful, largely positive forces.

It may also turn out that, all things being equal, the “ownership premium”—the extra that books cost because they could be transferred to others—was an unnecessary drag on our lives. If we aren’t paying for true ownership, we can perhaps rent—and read—more. Maybe with books, as with tuxedos, most people are better off renting.(1) Or, to take another example, where we once dug wells, and “owned our own water supply,” we eventually found it was more efficient to socialize the cost of the infrastructure, and pay for usage.

I even expect we don’t even know all the good things ebooks will bring about. I’m not even being sarcastic.

But if something is gained, something will definitely be lost. The list of ebook “externalities” is long: the death of physical bookstores, the wounding or death of traditional public libraries, the concentration of retail power in a few hands, surrendering your reading history to corporations, privacy and censorship issues in undemocratic states, leaving your books to your kids, lending books to friends, showing off, subway voyeurism, etc.

So, to that list, add the death of the smallest libraries.

1. I own my own tuxedo, however, and I wear it whenever I can, dammit.

Labels: ebooks, future of the book, small libraries

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Library Anywhere at PLA

PLA is happening right now in Portland, OR. We don’t have our own booth, but Casey is hanging out at the ProQuest booth (booth 2032), along with the Bowker folks. Stop by to talk about LibraryThing for Libraries, and to see live demos of Library Anywhere—a mobile catalog for any library!

(click to see larger images)

The exhibits are open until 5pm today, and from 9:30-4 tomorrow.

Labels: library anywhere, PLA

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Library Anywhere write-up on ALA TechSource blog

Library Anywhere, our upcoming product that provides a mobile catalog (both mobile web and native apps) for any library, just got an excellent write-up on the ALA TechSource blog: LibraryThing Delivers Mobile Access to Library Catalogs.

The article, by Marshall Breeding, will also appear in the March 2010 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter.

Breeding says of Library Anywhere,

“With the high level of functionality and the low pricing, this competition will lower the threshold for mobile technology into the reach of almost any library.”

We’re certainly excited about Library Anywhere, and are busy at work on it. We’ll have more to show off soon!

Labels: library anywhere, librarything for libraries, mobile, mobile catalog

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

March Legacy Mob: U.S.S. California

After the success of cataloging the 1963 White House Library, we’ve made it into a monthly thing.

This month, starting at 12:00 noon EST Wednesday, March 3, and continuing for 24 hours, we’re going to be cataloging the on-board library of the U.S.S. California, as it was in 1905.

This California‘s library catalog were written up and published by the Government Printing Office, and has been scanned by the Internet Archive. Designed to serve the California‘s 830-odd officers and men—the libraries were separate—it offers a unique view of the navy of the time, and of the country. The ship, then rechristened the San Diego, and its library, went to the bottom of the ocean in 1918, the victim of a German U-boat. Six sailors died.

The “Legacy Mob” is an amalgam of two LibraryThing inventions:

Labels: flash-mob cataloging, legacy libraries, legacy mob

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

CoverGuess: The game that helps people find books…

See the main blog. (Posted to the wrong blog and too many links to this to just delete it.)

Labels: book covers, new feature

Monday, March 1st, 2010

400,000 LTFL Reviews

We now have over 400,000 reviews vetted and available for LibraryThing for Libraries. (Last June we hit 300,000, so over 100,000 reviews have been added in the past 8 months—not bad.)

400,000 is a lot of reviews. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, for example, has 117 reviews. Now you probably don’t need to read over 100 reviews. But if a popular book gets that many, then the more obscure books in your catalog could have 20, 10, or 5 reviews. LTFL reviews cover the bestsellers but they also reach down the long tail.

The LTFL Reviews Enhancement also comes with blog widgets and a Facebook application allow your patrons to show off their reviews—and their love for your library—where they “live” online.

The Reviews Enhancement is currently available for Horizon, iBistro, Webvoyage, Voyager 7, Koha, Evergreen, WebPac, WebPac Pro, and Polaris 3.6. We’re always expanding this list, so if your OPAC isn’t one of these, email and we can work on adding support for it.

For more information, email me ( For ordering information, contact Peder Christensen at Bowker—877-340-2400 or

Labels: librarything for libraries, ltfl, LTFL Reviews

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Tasmanian radio interview and talk

John Dalton, our man in Australia, did a snappy 12-minute radio interview for ABC Hobart show “Afternoons” with Michael Veitch. (Apparently, although John’s thousands of miles away from the rest of us, and working from home, he doesn’t get to “bludge around” very much.)

Here’s a link to a recording: recording

The appearance was related to the State Library of Tasmania, a long-time LibraryThing for Libraries member, adding our “Reviews” enhancement, and public talk John is giving on Wednesday at the State Library in Hobart tomorrow, Wednesday at 4:00pm.

More on the talk here.

An example book at the State Library, with reviews, here.

Labels: australia, librarything for libraries, talks

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Why are you for killing libraries?

Publishing idea-man Mike Shatzkin recently wrote a provocative blog post, “Why are you for killing bookstores?

He lays out the uncomfortable facts:

“Although there are probably few people reading this blog who expect bookstores to be around in 15 or 20 years (and those who do will undoubtedly leave a comment!), there are many who would like to keep them around as long as possible. There is a magic to being in a building surrounded by 40,000, 60,000, 100,000 different books. Bookstores are inherently community centers. They make possible the wide dissemination and promotion of great writing. They enable people to see heavily-illustrated books before they purchase them.

But have you thought about this? If you are for bookstores lasting as long as possible, you want to slow down the uptake of ebooks.”

He goes on to explain the broad dynamics of the situation—the way Amazon, the big physical retailers and publishing look at the future, and which side they’re on—faster ebooks or not. It’s a stimulating read. And a depressing one.

Particularly depressing for me is the fact that Shatzkin never mentions libraries. (As one commenter on his post wrote, “Those buildings with 1000s of books that you speak so fondly of are called libraries.”) It’s not his fault, really. It’s a short blog post. But I think it shows the extent of the problem for libraries. When a top industry analyst looks at the book world, libraries don’t figure very prominently. There is a war going on, and libraries are going to be collateral damage.

They don’t deserve it. US libraries circulated some 2.1 billion books last year, compared to 3.1 billion books sold. But they don’t have much of a profile in the commercial world.(1) Being responsible for something like 39% of reading, bookstores only are about 4% of book sales.(2)

The difference is, of course, that libraries don’t pay every time they circulate a book. Under the First Sale doctrine—the idea that you, well, own the things you own—libraries can pay once, and lend a book out multiple times.

Ebooks change this. As ebooks advance, libraries are going to lose their “First Sale” advantage. Publishers will never allow a library to “own” an ebook absolutely, just as consumers don’t really own their ebooks. Libraries are going to be renting them, in fact or in effect, and they’re going to paying a lot more to do it. They’re going to be paying for the use they get out of them, not spending what consumers spend and getting more use. (I’ve written on the economics here before, so check that out first if you disagree with me.)

As the logic takes hold, libraries will be transformed into “simple” book-subsidy machines, not the special, advantaged ones they are now. That means they’re either be forced to subscribe to fewer books, invest a lot more in their holdings or, for public libraries, convince voters to give them a lot more money. Those are bad options.

Other factors exacerbate the problem. Libraries are losing the “aggregation advantage.” When every book is available anywhere, why go to the library to get it? And piracy hurts. Digitization has cut the music industry in half in the last decade, and there’s no reason to believe books will become the first digital medium to avoid it. When you can not only get a book anywhere, but get it for free, why go to the library?

There are some reasons. Unlike bookstores, of course, libraries do other solid, valuable things. They employ librarians, who help you find and understand things. They provide free internet access. They hold story times and author readings. They lend out other things, although, excepting tools and people, digitization is going to wipe those markets out too.(3) And they’re funded indirectly. Bookstores monetize their community value—whether it’s an author reading or just the value of meeting cool people—by selling valuable objects. They create more value than they can realize. Public libraries, by contrast, monetize through government taxation, which is to say by periodically asking voters if they value them. As of now, despite some budgetary cuts, voters mostly do.

But, overall, I think libraries are headed in the same direction as bookstores and in obedience to the same logic—falling in tandem with the rise of ebooks. If they survive, it’ll be for everything else they offer and so, for me at least, apart from the librarians, whose value won’t fall, ebook libraries won’t be full-fledged libraries anymore.

Shatzkin concludes:

“I don’t think anybody would want to be accused of being in favor of killing bookstores faster. And very few of us would be comfortable having it said we were trying to slow down the progress of digital technology, strategizing to slow down ebook uptake. But you are for one or the other, unless you don’t have any opinion at all.”

Isn’t the same thing true for libraries and ebooks?

Update 1: If you want to reply, you can leave a comment, but I also started a topic in Talk about the topic.

Well, that’s about the most depressing thing I’ve written. I hope I’m wrong. And I even have some hopeful, positive things to say too. But I’ll save them for another day.

1. These numbers are all very wiggly. Eric Hellman, formerly of OCLC, has been working on them for a while. Start with this, this and this.
2. As founder of LibraryThing, which doesn’t cede the term “library” to institution collections of books alone, I need to mention that “lending” isn’t just an institutional library phenomenon. Regular people lend and share books too, probably in numbers to rival libraries. That phenomenon will be largely ended by ebook DRM—and revived by piracy.
3. It’s actually digitization plus virtualization. CDs are digital, but they’re also physical objects, so libraries can own them for real. When CDs are gone—and they’re going—libraries will have to contract with digital music services. The dynamics are similar to the ebook dynamics.

Labels: ebooks

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Something is the Future

Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Princeton librarian and blogger, wrote an excellent post, called “Nothing is the Future.” It attacks a certain sort of insipid library futurism—and is going all over the “Twittersphere”:

The kindest interpretation of statements like “the future is mobile” or “the future of reference is SMS” or “the future is librarians in pods” or whatever is that the librarians are trying to create that future by speaking it. The incantation will somehow make it so…. The less kind interpretation is that the authors of such statements are reductionist promoters, reducing a complex field to whatever marginal utility they’re focused on and claiming that this is the future, while simultaneously promoting themselves as seers.

The obvious and most likely statement is that nothing is the future, as in no thing is the future, period. Anyone who tells you different is just plain wrong. With technology, it should be clear to anyone who bothers to see past their obsessions that formats and tools die hard. Some people like to imply that if librarians don’t take up every new trend they’ll become like buggy whip makers. I should point out that there are still people who make buggy whips. Buggy whips aren’t as popular as they once were, but they’re still around. There are even buggies to accompany them.

I started to reply in comments, but my words added up. So here they are:

Though a purveyor of “Web 2.0″ ideas—I founded LibraryThing, what can I say?—I think it’s a great post.

The rhetoric you describe rings true. It starts, I think, from the popularizers and enthusiasts who take up new technologies and communicate them to the great mass of librarians whose life revolves around other things. To get through the clutter—to be one of the things you take back from a weekend of ALA or PLA talks—the message is simplified and the rhetoric ratchets up. “This is useful” loses out to “this will save you.” As it passes through libraryland the cycle repeats in spirals of simplification and amplification. Over and over I see broader intellectual discussions of technology and the future of libraries reduced to trivial and ephemeral exhortations like “every library needs to be on Meebo!” or “the future is SMS!”

It’s depressing, but it’s not unique to library technology. You see it in other trends, like “green libraries” (they’re the future, didn’t you get the memo?). It’s in the dynamics of communication. Your post is a good corrective to it.

At the same time, you’re missing something. I don’t know if you’re missing it for real, or just in this focused expression. But there’s a powerful “yes but” here, and it needs saying—shouting even!—lest people take the wrong thing from your post.

For all the nonsense and hype, librares are subject to an extraordinary and rapid cultural change. They have already changed drastically—especially if “libraries” means what libraries mean to culture generally, and people who don’t work in them.

Libraries are in the “information business” and this business is in one of the most profound transformations in human history. This isn’t buggies vs. Stanley Steamers—different ways of getting to the habberdasher. It’s horse-and-buggy culture vs. everything the car has brought—mass production, suburban living, the Blitzkreig, the global economy, global warming and the sexual revolution. Certainly, as you say, carriges continue to exist as objects that convey people, but their meaning has been utterly transformed. If libraries end up as a way for rich people to indulge children on a visit to a big city—what carriages mean today—well, crap! How did that happen?!

The world is changing, and for all the noise about this or that technology, I don’t think libraries are dealing with it squarely. (Forget Web 2.0; libraries haven’t really ingested Web 1.0 yet.) “The future is X” isn’t the best response to that change, but it’s a response.

I expect your post will get wide circulation. It says something that hasn’t been said before as well. But if it prompts librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries, it will do great harm. Instead, I hope people use your essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.

PS: By the way, LibraryThing is releasing a universal mobile catalog. It’s the future. No, really! :)

Labels: library technology, LIS

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Shelf Browse live at High Plains

Shelf Browse—which we announced last week—is now live in High Plains Library District’s catalog. As we mentioned in our brief ALA announcement, Shelf Browse lets you browse your library’s shelves visually, just as you would do in the physical library.

Shelf Browse lets your patrons see where a book sits on your actual shelves, and what’s near it. It includes a “mini-browser” that sits on your detail pages, and a full-screen version, launched from the detail page.

See it in action at High Plains Library District. Some jumping off points:

Scroll back and forth, serendipitously browsing through the shelves. If lists are more your speed, in the full-screen version, you can switch between shelf and list mode.

For ordering information contact Peder Christensen at Bowker—toll-free at 877-340-2400 or email

Labels: librarything for libraries, ltfl, shelf browse